Lecture 46: NT Survey - James
The writer of the Book of James simply introduces himself as (1:1),”James a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”. Well, there are a lot of James’s that we know of in the New Testament, for instance, we have James who is the father of Judas, one of the apostles; we have James the son of Alphaeus, who himself was one of the apostles; we have James the son of Zebedee and the brother of John; and we have James the brother of Jesus. With regard to the first two, we really know nothing about them. It would be almost impossible for such an anonymous James to write a letter and just say “I’m James”, expecting people to know who he was. The other two James’s are well-known. James the son of Zebedee, however, was martyred very early in the church under Herod Antipas, in about AD 44. I don’t know of anybody who would argue that James the son of Zebedee wrote this letter – it’s just too early in that respect.
This leaves only one other James, and that is James the brother of Jesus, as a possibility. We also know that James (Jesus’s brother) played a very significant role in the church – that he was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. It’s interesting that Peter has a leadership role in the church in Judea (as we see in Pentecost and the things that follow), but he doesn’t seem to have been “the leader of the church in Jerusalem”; that seemed to have been James, who apparently after the resurrection of Jesus became a believer. That James (the brother of Jesus) was martyred in AD 62. What happened there was that, during the absence of a Roman governor, the Sanhedrin and the high priest conspired and brought about the execution of James the brother of Jesus in AD 62. They did not, however, have the right to carry out capital punishment (we see this in the case of Jesus, where they had to bring him to Pontius Pilate to have him executed). When the Roman governor came back, he immediately deposed the high priest from his duties and placed a new one in his stead, because what he’d done was illegal. Of course, for James it didn’t matter (he was dead by then), but if he died in 62, and if this book was written by that James, the book had to be written before 62, making it one of the earlier books of the New Testament.
There have been problems, however, with this, and that is that James was not immediately received with overwhelming support, like we saw that Paul’s letters or the gospels were, when the Canon of Scripture was being recognized. It was what we call one of the “Antilegomena” (books that some people had reservations about). And those who argue against the authorship of James for this book say that if James the brother of Jesus had written this book, then the church would have immediately received it. Some also say that the Greek of the Book of James is too good for someone like the brother of Jesus to have written. Also, there are not an awful lot of historical quotations of Jesus in this book, or references to Jesus, and supposedly you would expect more of that from the brother or half-brother of Jesus (if you believe in the virgin birth, like I do). You would expect more references to him.
Having said that, against such a view, you have the fact that the book claims to have been written by James, and there’s only one James that it could fit, and that’s James the brother of our Lord. And when you look at the book, there are not direct quotations, but numerous allusions to the teachings of Jesus. Turn with me to 1:5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” You may also remember (Matthew 7:7), “Ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.” Go to 5:2-3, “Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire.” Compare that with Matthew 6:19-20, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven ….” In 5:12, “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” Let me read Matthew 5:33-37 in the Sermon on the Mount, because the parallel there is very close, “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘no’; anything more than this comes from evil.” So you do have some close similarities like this.
The letter has an unusual introduction. You would expect from a Jewish Christian something like grace or peace included. But it has simply, “Greeting”, which is sort of the secular way that they had of introducing letters. And we have that in the letter that the Jerusalem Church, written under the auspices of James himself, sends to the churches in the Gentile world in Acts 15:22-23, “They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, with the following letter: ‘The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, Greetings.’” There’s a similarity there in that respect. It’s very hard to say what the brother of Jesus would have written. How do you climb into the minds of people like that? This is a letter that is very Jewish in orientation, that fits very well the situation of James, and also claims to be James. So I think the burden of proof is to deny that he wrote it. I don’t have those particular problems.
As to the date of it, I mentioned that James was martyred in AD 62, and if that’s so, the letter has to have been written before then. When you try to organize the Book of James, it’s like trying to organize the Book of Proverbs. It’s very difficult; you don’t have lengthy areas where arguments follow. Many times, you have proverbial sayings thrown in here and there. Generally something like what I have here [i.e., the outline https://www.biblicaltraining.org/content/new-testament-survey-acts-revelation] is useful if you need an outline in some way or other. But notice when you get to 4:13-5:20 “miscellaneous exhortation”. That’s a good, helpful outline of the argument.
We noted the typical Hellenistic greeting in the letter (instead of “peace” or “grace” it begins with “greetings”). He speaks of trials in v. 2 “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” James is telling his readers that there’s a sense that trials have a positive purpose. What happens in times of trial is that they establish your character. I remember talking to a good friend of mine, Mack Nettleton. We were talking about our youth, and how we worked hard in our youth, and some of the experiences we went through when we were young men. And we both agreed that we wanted it to be better for our children. We didn’t want them to have to go through that. And then, I realized that these are the experiences that made us the people that we are. In other words, the hard times that we went through helped develop our character. And if you want to prevent people from going through those kinds of things, you might be preventing in some ways the kinds of experiences that help develop character, steadfastness, etc. That doesn’t mean that you want to persecute your children so that their character develops, or anything like that. But it was simply a reflection in that way. And James looks at going through trials in a positive sense here – that it helps develop our character.
When you get to v. 13, however, that exact same word in the Greek text is used, but here it is very negative, “Let no one say when he is tempted [or going through trials], ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” This is a good example as to how you arrive at the meaning of words. It’s the exact same Greek word in root. But it’s used differently, because that word can be used in different ways. It can mean trials in a positive sense, in that in which it builds character; or it could be temptations that seek to destroy – it’s the same word. It’s the context that tells you that, and James makes that clear for us. In the first sentence it’s positive because it develops character; in the second sense it’s negative because it doesn’t come from God; it’s a temptation to do evil. It’s the same word, but the context tells us how it is used. It’s very important. Concordances are wonderful tools, but they can be very misleading if you think that all you have to do is look up the same word elsewhere, and it always means the same thing. In hermeneutics, we talk about words having a “pattern of meaning”, or a “range of meaning”. We talk about “norms of language”, so that there are possibilities. It’s the context that makes the specific meaning of the word clear for you. This is a good example, where we have within the same chapter, the same author using the same word in two different ways.
There’s an interesting statement here about v. 9, “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass, he will pass away.” We see another parallel when we think about Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Rejoice in the exaltation that awaits you, and that is ours. The rich person (if it’s the rich believer), is to rejoice in his having humbled himself, having repented, and become a believer and possessing eternal wealth. If it’s a rich unbeliever, let him rejoice in now humbling himself and entering into eternal life. We’re not sure as to whether a believer or un-believer is meant here with regard to the rich person. But if it’s a rich believer, it’s because in having humbled himself, he inherits the earth. He becomes a follower of Jesus. If it’s an unbeliever, let him rejoice in humbling himself and taking faith in Christ.
The man who’s blessed in his going through trials, hopefully develops through that character and becomes more like Christ. There are other kinds of temptations, and the one thing that James says here is not to think that they come from God. God does not send temptation. He may allow trials to develop our character, but he never sends temptation in order to destroy and to cause us to fall. The Bible is interesting as to when it talks about the sources of temptation. I don’t know if any of you have ever seen re-runs of Flip Wilson’s comedy sketches of a woman named Geraldine. Whenever Geraldine did something wrong, her response was, “The devil made me do it.” She blamed the devil for everything that she would do. There is a sense in which temptation has as one of its possible sources, the devil. But Christian theology has always said that temptation comes from the world, the flesh, and the devil. And if you remove the devil from the scene, it doesn’t change the fact that we still can be tempted. And if you remove the world from us, we can still be tempted, because I can see that within me, I can will to do what is right, but to do it is not possible. And Paul talks strongly about the flesh and its weakness, and the temptations that the flesh brings. So, when you look at all of the possibilities that face us, it’s not only the devil, but the world, and the flesh itself.
As we come to the end of that chapter, he gives an example of what true piety and religion is like (v. 26), “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is vain. [James will talk more about the tongue later on.] Religion that is pure and undefiled, before God and the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” I trust that orphans and widows, the poor, will always be an aspect of your ministry. James thinks pretty highly that, that’s what pure religion is all about. And if you don’t have time for that in your ministry, you don’t have time for ministry. It’s very important – I know that we emphasize missions, evangelism, and winning the lost, and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do those things. But if you don’t have room for the poor and the orphans, there’s something basically wrong. I have a good friend named Clarence Bass who taught theology at Bethel Theological Seminary, and every now and then we’d talk about politics, and about what’s going on in government; and he always came up with a reply of “But how do the poor come out in all of this?” I got tired of that, and then after a while I realized that there’s something wrong with me, not with Clarence. He had it right, with his concern for the poor. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is to visit orphans and widows in their affliction. Be concerned for the poor.
The problem of James that most people have comes up in 2:14, ff. When Luther was wrestling with the defense of the doctrine of justification by faith, the section that his opponents would always quote back to him was in James, because James emphasizes works, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? … faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead.” And Luther didn’t like James, and called it a “straw epistle”. And in his German translation of the Bible, in the New Testament, James is further back, much nearer to the end than it is even now. It reveals that Luther would have probably preferred for James to be so far back as to be outside of the New Testament, but he couldn’t and wouldn’t do that. The church’s canon tradition was too strong for him to do that.
One of the things that we emphasize in the hermeneutics class is, again, the importance of making sure that you know what writers mean by the words they use. And, faith has a number of possible meanings. The meaning that this kind of faith James is talking about has associated with it, is very different than the meaning that Paul associates with it. In v. 14, he says it is a faith that has no works. And in v. 19, he refers to a faith that believes that God is one, like the demons do. And so it’s a faith that in v. 16 can see a brother or sister, a fellow Christian, ill-clad, hungry, and simply say platitudes (“May the Lord bless you”), without doing anything to take care of that person. That’s the kind of faith that James is talking about. That is not the kind of faith Paul talks about. Paul is talking about a whole-hearted trust, a complete trust that God in his mercy and in his grace has provided a way in which we can be forgiven. And we throw ourselves at the feet of Jesus and ask him in his mercy to present us before the father. And it’s something that is not simply an intellectual acknowledgment that god is one.
When he describes works, on the other hand, it’s the works of clothing people, giving them something to wear (v. 15-16). In v. 21, it’s the kind of works that Abraham did in offering his son upon the altar. It’s the kind of works that (v. 25) Rahab carried out when she protected God’s messengers at the risk of her own life. Those are the kinds of works being referred to. You have to turn to the question now of what Paul is referring to when he refers to faith -- the kind of trust that Abraham had, that he even believed that God could raise his son from the dead when he was about to offer him as a sacrifice. And the works he’s talking about are very different. The works that Paul talks about don’t mean clothing the naked and feeding the hungry; they mean submitting to circumcision, doing various rituals of the law, doing what some people now call the boundary markers of Israel, those things that were unique to Israel, such as circumcision, the Sabbath, various rituals of eating, and the like.
The words here don’t mean the same thing, so you can’t equate Paul’s meaning with what James is talking about when he talks about faith; and you ascribe James’s meaning when Paul talks about faith. The same goes with works. I have noted here v. 14b, “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith?” This is the KJV translation, but note that it does NOT say, “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man has faith?” James would not accept this as faith, any more than Paul would. This is simply someone claiming they have faith. And in the next part of that verse, he says, “Can [and then the article] that faith [what we just talked about, referring to the previous faith] save a person?” And the answer is no. Doesn’t faith always save? No – even demons have faith .We need to differentiate between the kinds of faith we’re referring to when we talk about saving faith. The intellectual assent of demons that acknowledge existence of God doesn’t save people. The kind of faith that saves is the kind that trusts in God like Abraham did, and Rahab did, and others like that. So I think much of the problem here is that the terms are being used differently. They don’t mean the same as what Paul means. And therefore, the conflict is not as great as some people might like to make it.
Having said that, there’s a difference in emphasis. And you will always find that in your counseling of people, this one gospel you believe in, you might want to emphasize different things to different people. There are people that you need to emphasize the need of repentance to, if they’re thinking about becoming a Christian. You want to emphasize that they need to repent and turn from their sin. There are other people for whom you don’t have to say that at all, because they’re heart-broken, and they know the need for repentance. They have a supreme sorrow over their sin and they want to leave it – they just want to know what they can do. If they repent, can God save them? Yes, if they believe in Jesus. Then you go into an emphasis on faith. It’s by grace -- there’s nothing they need to do if their heart is right; just trust in Jesus. For others you emphasize perhaps what this involves – that one must turn from their sin. And if you know perhaps which particular sins are plaguing them, you might want to single them out, like Jesus does to the rich young ruler.
At the end, I just want to call your attention to the fact that what James is talking about in these verses, Paul talks about in Galatians 5:6, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith, [and then he adds] that works through love ….” You almost would think that this came from James, but Paul said it. It’s a faith that works through love. And Jesus’s words in Matthew 7:21 are similar, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” So both of them you could say that this simple verbal assent that even demons can do doesn’t save; but it has to be a faith that brings about and works through love.
In chapter 3:1-12, we have various sayings about proverbial kinds of wisdom, talking about the tongue, something that ministers should especially be careful to read and work their way through carefully. There are some people who never get in trouble with their tongue because you don’t know they can speak. They never say anything at any time. Those who are going to be leaders in the church have to speak. And when you think of all the times you can speak, you need to pray that God will guard your tongue. I’ve often been amazed at how God has kept Billy Graham over the years. Think of all the times he’s talked, over 50-plus years of ministry – and of the possibilities. And when you have someone all of a sudden stick a microphone in your nose, and you have to say something that you haven’t worked out carefully and thought out, it’s a call to be careful. And on Sundays when you preach, you can have the most wonderful 25-minute sermon the world has ever heard, but five seconds later say something that destroys it all if you’re not careful. So, read over 3:1-12 constantly in your ministry, and make sure you do it in class as well.
In 5:1-6 he says something that may seem a little harsh for us,
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.”
Is this a condemnation for everybody who’s rich? First of all, before we answer that, don’t interpret this as being said in an American middle-class society. In the society James is talking about, there are two kinds of people: poor people and rich people. And the rich people are rich because they keep the people in the other class poor. They’re an oppressing group. It could be that not every rich person of James’s time was oppressive, but in general that’s true. And when you have that inordinate kind of separation between the poor and rich, this great divide, the poor, if they rise up, treat the rich as a group, a unity that have been oppressing them in some ways. So, when James talks this way, he’s talking about the general rich person who’s part of the oppressing group who, for instance, can oppress the poor, not pay them their wages and get away with it because they have influence and authority, that can see people who are poor who are troublemakers beaten up or killed. It’s this understanding of the rich of that time that’s being understood.
Having said that, the danger of riches is very clear in the New Testament. The story of the rich young ruler, who seemed to be a wonderful man – the kind of person you’d have as an elder in your church, was confronted by Jesus with the god he held other than the real God. And he was so much in love with his riches, that when he was told he has to sell it all and get rid of it, he couldn’t do it. Maybe some of us can be thankful that we’ve never been rich and have never had to go through that temptation. Better to have never been rich, and not having been lost over the challenges of those riches. If you don’t have a lot of riches, it’s a lot easier to repent in that regard.
Verse 5:8 is a concluding look as to the future. James points us ahead and says, “Be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” You’ll find in the next letters as well that hope, that looking forward to the return of the Lord, where we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven ….” And the cry of “Maranatha!” is an integral part of the faith and hope of the early church. James is a book of proverbs worth reading. It’s hard to organize in many ways, but I hopefully gave you a few helps as to this particular book today.